Top 10 Books Of The Year 2021- The Top 5

Happy New Year! I’m celebrating the start of 2022 by having a look back at my favourite reads of 2021. Those I rated between 10 and 6 can be found here. On with the Top 5!

5. The Echo Chamber – John Boyne (Doubleday 2021) (Read and reviewed in July)

No stranger to my end of year Top 10, John Boyne wrote my 2017 book of the year “The Heart’s Invisible Furies” (2017) was runner-up in 2018 with “The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas” (2006) and also made it to 4th that same year with his 2018 “A Ladder To The Sky“. These were all very different books and this biting comic satire was also very much a departure and inspired by social media response of his YA novel “My Brother’s Name Is Jessica“. This is an author who loves to take risks and I like that. Reviews, have unsurprisingly, because it is such a departure, been a little mixed and I can understand why some people have thought this fell short of what they were expecting from Boyne. I however, stand by my description of it as “a great comic novel of our time which should provide a great tonic for these strange times we live in“.

4. Many Different Types Of Love – Michael Rosen (Penguin 2021) (Read and reviewed in March)

This was the best non-fiction work I have read this year. I’m not sure how ready I am to read about the Covid-19 pandemic, it might still be a little too much too soon but I was certainly prepared to make an exception for this collection of prose poems from a writer I very much admire who nearly became a Covid death statistic. His writings on his illness and recovery are interspersed with extracts from a diary those caring for him maintained to show him how much they cared. I said of this “These people were exhausted, often redeployed from their usual job and no doubt stressed beyond belief but they made the time to communicate with this comatose man in this way and these diary entries form an extremely moving section of the book.” There’s much humour in the darkness and when I read this on the anniversary of the first lockdown I felt strongly that; “When we are moaning about lockdown restrictions and posing conspiracy theories it’s important to feel the voice of those affected and Michael Rosen’s experience speaks for the thousands who have been similarly affected and for those thousands we have lost.” This was a title I had highlighted from the start of the year and I did think it would end up as one of the year’s biggest sellers, with numbers comparable to Adam Kay. This hasn’t happened which suggests that maybe we are not all totally ready for this yet but it will be a lasting testament both to the man and the times in which we have been living.

3. The Vanishing Half – Brit Bennett (Dialogue 2020) (Read and reviewed in June)

Here’s one I kept flagging up before I got round to reading it. I featured it in my “What I Should Have Read In 2020” post and in my “Looking Around” post so I was building up the expectations. It delivered. Two twin girls escape their small time life for a new home in New Orleans. One eventually returns to her home town whilst the other is “passing” as a white woman in a decades-spanning saga. I felt that “There are so many discussion points in this novel regarding identity that one might expect it to feel issue-driven but no, plot and characterisation are both very strong and that together with its immersive readability provides an extremely impressive rounded work.” Over the past year I’ve selected it for reading groups and have recommended it probably more than any other book. I always ask what people think of it and it’s always a thumbs up- however, there are often reservations voiced about the ending, and I do agree with them.

2. The Prophets – Robert Jones Jnr (Quercus 2021) (Read and reviewed in January)

An astonishing debut. When I read it I was convinced that this would be my book of the year and posted it within my “100 Essential Books” strand. It’s a book which has got the odd nod from awards committees but hasn’t swept the board winning awards as I had expected it to. I was convinced a Booker nomination would be assured but it was not even longlisted. The paperback is expected in the UK in late January and hopefully this will generate the serious sales this book deserves. I said this slave plantation-set novel “could very well become a contender for the twenty-first century Great American novel.” Don’t just believe me, check out the Amazon reviews where it has 61% five star and 22% 4 star which is excellent going for a book which is demanding, poetic and at times overwhelming. Extraordinary.

1. Shuggie Bain – Douglas Stuart (Picador 2020) (Read and reviewed in April)

2020 was the year that the Booker Prize judges got it exactly right. I’d become a little wary after the year they awarded it to “Lincoln In The Bardo” (I must stop harping on about that!). I featured this in my “What I Should Have Read In 2020” but this year this book’s reputation has continued to grow as more and more people have fallen in love with it. It’s another I’ve selected for reading groups throughout the year and admittedly, some people are never going to give it a go, put off by its working class Glasgow 1980’s setting but those who do generally praise it to the skies. And deservedly so, as this study of a relationship between Shuggie and his mother has provided us with two of the most memorable characters in modern fiction. I said “It’s gritty and raw but at its heart is an incredible beauty and humanity which even when the reader is dabbing away tears of sadness, frustration or laughter is life-affirming.”  I cannot wait for this Scottish author’s second novel “Young Mungo” which is due in April. This is the first time in nine years I have awarded my Book Of The Year to a UK writer. Douglas Stuart deserves his place in my own special Hall Of Fame. Here are my other top titles going back to 2008.

2021- Shuggie Bain – Douglas Stuart (2020) (UK)

2020 – The Great Believers – Rebecca Makkai (2018) (USA)

2019 – Swan Song – Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott (2018) (USA)

2018- The Count Of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas (1845) (France)

2017 – The Heart’s Invisible Furies – John Boyne (2017) (Ireland)

2016- Joe Speedboat – Tommy Wieringa (2016) (Netherlands)

2015- Alone In Berlin- Hans Fallada (2009 translation of a 1947 novel) (Germany)

2014- The Wanderers – Richard Price (1974) (USA)

2013- The Secrets Of The Chess Machine – Robert Lohr (2007) (Germany)

2012 – The Book Of Human Skin – Michelle Lovric (2010) (UK)

2011 – The Help- Kathryn Stockett (2009) (USA)

2010- The Disco Files 1973-78 – Vince Aletti (1998) (USA)

2009- Tokyo – Mo Hayder (2004) (UK)

2008- The Book Thief – Markus Zusak (2007) (Australia)

Special mentions for the three five star reads which did not make it into the Top 10. “Next Of Kin” by Kia Abdullah (2021) just missing out on two consecutive Top 10 recommendations by the narrowest of margins, Bryan Washington’s “Memorial” (2021) and “Love After Love” by Ingrid Persaud (2020).

Here’s to some great reading in 2022.

The Vanishing Half – Brit Bennett (2020)

Another book from my What I Should Have Read In 2020 post (I’ve now managed to get through 60% of these).  Here was one I suspected  that I would really like but I enjoyed it even more than I imagined.  This is American author Brit Bennett’s second novel and after this I would certainly be keen on seeking out her 2016 debut “The Mothers”.

This, however, is the book that has established her breakthrough into the big time, appearing on so many Best Of The Year lists and has been shortlisted for the 2021 Women’s Prize for fiction.  The hype has built up which is often a dangerous thing for me and my expectations, but I’ll emphasise this, my expectations were exceeded here.

I came to it knowing roughly what it was about but there was so much more to it . Two light-skinned black twin sisters disappear from their small-town home and head for the excitement of New Orleans.  One, Desiree, eventually pairs up with an abusive, dark skinned man and has Jude, whose blue-black darkness of her skin shocks the residents of her home town, Mallard (where its black residents generally have a much lighter tone) on her return whereas her twin, Stella, ditches Desiree to disappear once again and decides to “pass” and live her life as a white woman.  In a decades spanning time frame we have as our starting point 1968 when Desiree returns to Mallard with her young daughter. 

There are so many discussion points in this novel regarding identity that one might expect it to feel issue-driven but no, plot and characterisation are both very strong and that together with its immersive readability provides an extremely impressive rounded work.  Those plot lines and unpredictable turns do drive the reader forward.  It’s not without a healthy dollop of melodrama and on a few occasions the authors use of cliff-hangers resembles the soap operas that one of the characters makes a name for herself on, but this is also a good thing, making it feel highly commercial, this together with its relevance where its publication alongside the media coverage of the Black Lives Matter movement created publicity at a time when lockdown ensured the usual avenues of publicising their work were not open to most authors.  This book deserved the exposure, however, not because it was of the moment but because of the sheer quality of the handling of all areas of the book.

Performance has a major part to play.  Many of the characters are donning a disguise and playing a part, some professionally and some within their lives and even within their closest relationships.  I found the implications and repercussions of this fascinating.  It has the unusual advantages of being both a thought-provoking important novel and a great holiday read and I hope many more people will discover this work over the summer.  My only criticism of a book I found very difficult to put down is that perhaps the ending felt a little flat and less defined than I would have hoped but that may have been because it was the end of the novel and there was no more to read about these characters. 

The Vanishing Half was published in the UK by Dialogue Books in 2020.  The paperback edition is out now.

2020- What I Should Have Read

Here’s my annual post which I face with equal measures of pleasure and guilt (a winning combination I’ve always found!).  I’ve selected 10 titles which I feel I should have got round to reading this year.  Perhaps they slipped under my radar on publication and I’ve only found out about them in round-ups of the year, perhaps I’ve always been aware of them but just haven’t got round to them for one reason or another.  Probably like most people I have read more books this year (although not by a huge amount) but there are still a great number of desired titles that I just have not been able to fit in. 

Looking back on last year’s list I can see that I did eventually get round to reading 50% of the titles that I felt I had missed out on (the same as in 2018) and have 40% of them on my shelves ready to be read, (hopefully in 2021) leaving just one, the YA adult novel “Chinglish” by Sue Cheung, which continues to elude me.  So, without further ado, here in alphabetical order by author  are the titles I felt I missed out in this strange old year, 2020.

No Shame – Tom Allen (Hodder Studio)

It’s been a good year for memoirs and I have read a few of them but haven’t yet got round to comedian Tom Allen’s work. On the cover fellow comic Sarah Millican says it is “wonderfully funny, utterly charming and sharp as all hell” which pretty much sums up how I feel about the man so it makes me look forward to reading his writing. I anticipate that there will be a focus on his feelings as an outsider growing up gay and I wonder how much it can be seen as a kind of companion piece to Will Young’s 2020 publication which focused on gay shame which I did read, “To Be A Gay Man“. I’m very interested in reading Tom’s perspective on this issue. He is one of the few comedians out there now that I have seen live and would certainly pay to see him again. In the meantime there is this book to savour.

Djinn Patrol On Purple Lines – Deepa Annaparra (Chatto & Windus)

This is a debut novel I seem to have been putting on my personal to be read lists all year. It is one I have kept reading about but to be honest haven’t yet come across a copy. I’ve seen it on various best of the year in crime lists and I’m fascinated by its premise of a nine year old detective in modern India . It appeared early on in the year, has a striking cover and made the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist. On the cover Ian McEwan describes it as “brilliant” and Anne Enright hits home for me when she says “We care about these characters from the first page and our concern for them is richly repaid”  which is so often something I look for in a novel. It does seem that the pandemic has been particularly hard on debut novelists as they were unable to promote their books in the traditional ways and we as a nation tended to turn in large numbers to authors who we already knew.

The Vanishing Half – Brit Bennett (Dialogue Books)

I did read a book about separated twins this year, Edmund White’s “A Saint From Texas” but it seems like the one I should have read is this American writer’s second novel which I have seen described in end of year round ups as “a stunning family saga”. My colleague Louise who continues to put so many good book recommendations my way has this in the running for her book of the year vying for the title with a book which may very well be my own very favourite read of the year so that is a good enough recommendation for me.

The Windsor Knot – S J Bennett (Zaffre 2020)

Whilst everyone was going nuts for Richard Osman’s quirky, cosy crime caper “The Thursday Murder Club” I found myself favouring a secret yearning to read this book which has the potential to be a real guilty pleasure. The premise is nicely set out on the back cover “On a perfect Spring morning at Windsor Castle, Queen Elizabeth II will enjoy a cup of tea, carry out all her royal duties…and solve a murder”. Amanda Craig describes it as a mash-up between Miss Marple and “The Crown” which seems like a potent combination. QEII is no stranger to fiction, think Alan Bennett’s “The Uncommon Reader” and it is his depiction of her that I am imagining as the main character in this work. What’s with all these Bennetts that have appeared in this post?

Troubled Blood – Robert Galbraith (Sphere)

One of the few crime writers who I was up to date with until this doorstep of a book arrived in September by J K Rowling’s alter-ego. I am daunted by the size and the long waiting list for a library copy and will probably wait until it appears in paperback. I don’t think I will be disappointed when I eventually get round to it. I have enjoyed all of the Cormoran Strike novels so far (and the BBC TV adaptations) but so far they have never featured in my end of year Top 10. I wonder if this book will be the one to change that situation?

Rainbow Milk – Paul Mendez (Dialogue Books)

As soon as I read a review of this debut novel I knew I wanted to read it. A gay black man escapes his Jehovah’s Witness upbringing to come to London and ends up a sex worker. Adjectives such as “explosive”, “ground-breaking” and “daring” have seemed to follow it round and I was further intrigued by Booker Prize winning Bernardine Evaristo promoting it as her choice on Richard and Judy’s teatime lockdown book club programme. (I hope a large number of those viewers thought “I’d like to give that a go”). I really don’t know why I haven’t got round to purchasing a copy, I have been close to doing so a number of times but it is only a couple of months now until the paperback is scheduled to arrive so I think I will end up waiting until then before discovering a writer who is being described as a major new British talent.

Let’s Do It- Jasper Rees (Trapeze)

Another big book, this time about a really big talent. This is Ree’s authorised biography of my favourite comedian of all time, Victoria Wood. I think Rees is going to be good at separating the performer from the very different real Victoria. I saw her a number of times in her professional guise live in stand-up and of course devoured all of her television shows and am still able to quote whole scenes and also in her personal guise as many years ago her children went to the school I was working at. End of year round-ups have described this as “impeccable” I cannot wait to find out if I agree.

Shuggie Bain – Douglas Stuart (Picador)

I went through a spate of reading the Booker Prize winning novels as soon as possible after their win and for a couple of years worked my way through both short and longlists but the book that put me off this was “Lincoln In The Bardo” by George Saunders, a book I did not see winning one of literature’s most prestigious prizes back in 2017. I know I should have read by now last year’s joint-winning “Girl, Woman, Other” which featured on this list last year but I will do and I hope I won’t hesitate as long before reading this. I have been on the list for a library copy since this made the shortlist but I’m likely to end up buying it before long. It seems a book which is getting both critical and popular acclaim for it’s tale of a tough upbringing in 1980’s Glasgow. The Telegraph was one of a number of publications who had it as their book of the year saying that “it will scramble your heart and expand your mind“.

The Devil And The Dark Water – Stuart Turton (Raven Books)

Aha, Stuart Turton. No stranger to this list. His debut “Seven Deaths Of Evelyn Hardcastle” featured in my 2018 picks and ended up picking up The First Novel award at the Costas. It has been sitting on my Kindle since then and I just haven’t got round to it. This may be because I’m always asking people who have read it what they thought and their opinions have been a bit more mixed than I was expecting but now he has written something else which seems right up my street. This is a chunky, historical whodunnit set on board ship in the seventeenth century. Chosen by the very watchable TV series “Between The Covers” as a Book of The Week, this got the thumbs-up from the celebrity reviewers and has been described in end of year round-ups as a “fiendish maritime mystery.” The chronological obsessive reader in me is pushing me towards “Evelyn Hardcastle” first, but then that might mean it would take me some time to get to this and I’m not sure if I am prepared to wait.

A Dutiful Boy- Mohsin Zaidi (Square Peg)

I’m finishing my list as I started with another memoir which has attracted a good share of praise. Subtitled ” A memoir of a gay Muslim’s journey to acceptance” this feels like it would have parallels to a couple of other books I have read “Unicorn” by Amrou Al-Kadhi, which this year has gone on to win both a Somerset Maugham and Polari award and a flawed but very enjoyable YA novel “How It All Blew Up” by Arvin Ahmadi. It’s combination of religion and sexuality also brings to mind the “Rainbow Milk” novel I highlighted earlier. Of this Lord Michael Cashman has said it is “A real page-turner that sparks with humanity and hope“. After the year we have all had this would seem like a great reading choice.

What books did you not get around to reading this year?